Edge of Democracy in Brazil?

The past few days Brazilian internet was packed with commentaries about The Edge of Democracy (Portuguese: Democracia em Vertigem), a 2019 Brazilian documentary film directed by Petra Costa that was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 92nd Academy Awards (and lost). To be honest, I didn’t watch this movie and I’m not planning to. My life is already quite busy as it is. However, judging by the trailer and by what people were saying, “The film follows the political past of the filmmaker in a personal and intimate way, in context with the first term of President Lula until the events leading to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, analyzing the rise and fall of both presidents and the consequent sociopolitical crisis that swept the country. The arrest of Lula paved the way for the rise of Jair Bolsonaro and his eventual presidency” (from Wikipedia). Vox says this: “Filmmaker Petra Costa grew up in a politically involved family in Brazil, and that’s her starting point for The Edge of Democracy, in which she traces recent developments in Brazilian politics and shows how the country moved so quickly from a fledgling democracy toward far-right authoritarianism”. So, it seems to me that the movie is about how Brazil was becoming a vibrant democracy under the rule of the Workers’ Party and now it’s becoming a far-right autocracy. Judging by that, these are some thoughts on how I see democracy in recent and past Brazilian history.

Brazil was a Portuguese colony, but this was different from America being an English colony. There were not thirteen colonies in Brazil. Portugal’s oversight of Brazil was stronger than England’s over America. There was basically no space for local rule in Brazil. Therefore, Brazil came from its colonial days with basically no self-government experience.

Brazil became independent from Portugal in 1822. But again, this was different from America’s independence. In 1808 the Portuguese royal family came to Brazil, running away from Napoleon. Brazil became a United Kingdom with Portugal in 1815. Dom João VI, the Portuguese king, gave in to the court’s pressure and went back to Portugal in the early 1820s. However, he left his son Dom Pedro I as prince regent in Brazil. And at this Pedro declared Brazil’s independence in 1822.

Dom Pedro I was crowned as Emperor of Brazil and ruled until 1831. Suffering multiple pressures, he went back to Portugal like his father before him. From 1831 to 1840 Brazil was ruled by several regents. In 1840 Dom Pedro I’s son, Dom Pedro II, became emperor. He ruled until 1889, when he was deposed by a military coup.

Brazil has been a republic ever since, but not like America. We didn’t simply have presidential elections every four years. The first two Brazilian presidents were virtually military dictators. Civilians came to power in 1894 and ruled until 1930, but these were not exactly democratic times. Mostly the country was ruled by coffee oligarchs.

The last of these coffee planter presidents ruled until 1930. Then Getúlio Vargas came to power in a coup. He ruled until 1945. Vargas was deposed but continued to be a major political player. So much so, that he came to the presidency in the 1950s. He committed suicide in 1954, while still in office. Basically, the country was still under Vargas’ shadow from 1945 to 1964. And that’s when the military came to power.

Brazil was under military governments from 1964 to 1985. This is the historical period that people tend to remember and refer to the most. The military came to power because the population asked them to. There was a great fear of communism, and the army would theoretically defend Brazil against this. I am not saying that this fear was justified or that military governments was the right solution, but this is how most people thought at that time.

The last military president surrendered power in 1985. Since then, Brazil has been ruled by civilians. The Workers’ Party (or Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT, in Portuguese) became one of the most competitive political forces in Brazil in this period. Officially founded in 1980, it always had Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as one of its main leaders. The Workers’ Party always presented itself as broadly leftist, without further specification. Among its founders were sympathizers of Roman Catholic Liberation Theology, radical socialists who defended armed opposition to the dictatorship, and union workers (Lula among them).

Lula was presidential candidate in 1989, 1994 and 1998, always coming in second place with about 30% of the votes. During those years Lula and the Workers’ Party were radically opposed to the economic reforms Brazil was going through. Like in other countries, Brazil was suffering from the crumbling of years of populism. The Washington Consensus was the order of the day, but the Workers’ Party was against everything it called “neoliberalism”. “Out with FHC (Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil’s president from 1995 to 2002) and the IMF” was their usual chant. The party even defended not paying Brazil’s staggering international debts. Lula still hung out with socialist leaders, mostly Fidel Castro. However, in 2002 he presented a different platform. Advised by advertising professional and political strategist Duda Mendonça, he announced that, if elected president, he wouldn’t undo FHC’s economic reforms. Plagued by several international economic crises (Mexico, Asia, Russia, Argentina), Brazil was having a hard time entering the free-market world. The once highly popular FHC came out from office with low popularity. The combination of these factors (FHC’s low popularity at the time and Lula’s promise to pursue a less radical path) opened the way for the Workers’ Party to come to Brazil’s presidency.

In the first years of his government Lula was true to his promise. He not only maintained but deepened FHC’s economic reforms. After the initial shocks, Brazil slowly reacted to the free-market medicine and the economy started to grow. This guaranteed Lula’s reelection in 2006, although by then major corruption scandals already surrounded his presidency, centrally the Mensalão scandal. This scandal broke in 2005 when it was discovered that the Workers’ Party gave monthly payments to several deputies from other parties to vote for legislation that was favored by the ruling party. Although the investigations implicated some of Lula’s closest allies, the president himself managed to get off scot-free.

Lula’s second term in office marked a change from the first and even from his party’s historical stand up until then. The Workers’ Party since its inception always posed as a firm adversary to corruption. Political corruption is hardly something new in Brazil. Going back to the beginning of this text, one of Brazil’s historical problems has always been the difficulty of separating public and private. This was ironically famously observed by Raymundo Faoro, one of the Workers’ Party initial supporters. In Donos do Poder (Owners of the Power) Faoro observed that Brazil has always been led by ruling elites who saw public property as their property. In this scenario the very idea of corruption becomes fuzzy since ruling elites believe they are not stealing – they are simply using what is rightly theirs! It is against this scenario that Faoro and others proposed a technocrat professional bureaucracy. After the Mensalão scandal, however, the Workers’ Party became cynical towards corruption. Their usual response to it became to say that previous governments also did it, that they didn’t invent corruption or simply to say that Lula was an innocent man being politically persecuted by the elites. In sum, Workers’ Party officials and supporters were divided between those who, while not denying the veracity of the corruption scandals, tried to minimize it, and those who completely denied it.

Lula left his second term in office still high on popularity. So much so that he was able to elect his successor, Dilma Rousseff. Dilma, however, would face several difficulties in her presidency. Number one, although somewhat forgotten by the general public, the corruption scandals were still a reality that would surface every now and then. Second, Brazil was suffering the effects of the 2008 world economic crisis. Finally, Dilma was herself a shamefully inept leader.

As I mentioned before, Lula came to power in 2003 mainly because he and others in the Workers’ Party were able to (partially) come to terms with the fact that the Washington Consensus is called a consensus for a reason: as much as some things in political economy are debatable, some are not – centrally, you can’t spend money that you don’t have forever. Dilma would have none of that. Although she is famously very confused in the way she speaks, all things point to the fact that Dilma is trapped in a painfully outdated Keynesian mentality. Trapped in this mentality, she overspent – against Brazilian law. For this reason, she was impeached.

Dilma’s impeachment was followed by a short government of her vice-president, Michel Temer, and now the country is governed by Jair Messias Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro was for many years an obscure politician from Rio de Janeiro, elected mostly to corporately defend the military as workmen. Almost an unofficial union leader for soldiers. Bolsonaro, however, is also an admirer of the Brazilian army in general. He graduated from Academia Militar das Agulhas Negras, something akin to West Point. As a reformed army captain, he fiercely believes that the military did save Brazil from communism in the 1960s. As I mentioned before, that’s exactly what people in the 1960s believed. I’m not saying that they were right.

Ironically, leftists greatly benefited from the military governments of the 1960s-1980s. The guerrilla in Brazil’s countryside was crushed by the armed forces and the urban armed resistance was mostly weak and disorganized. Some important leaders in the Workers’ Party came precisely from these two. But Brazilian armed forces were shamefully unprepared to fight a cultural war. While some sectors of the left were still following Mao Zedong or Che Guevara, trying to reach power by force, others were reading Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, following a more cultural path to power.

In any case, the left was very good at posing as victims. In the years that followed the military governments, there was a tendency to romanticize the resistance. Some people, artists and politicians, made whole careers on that. To be “persecuted by the dictatorship” became a major asset.

But the truth is that Brazilian left never fought for democracy. This isn’t meant to depreciate them. It’s just a statement of fact. Actually, what I meant in the first paragraphs was to show that Brazil has a very weak democratic tradition. Beginning very early in the 20th century, shortly after the Russian Revolution, communists tried to take power in Brazil by force. Again, this is just a statement of fact. This continued up to the early 1960s when, fueled by Cold War fear (some might say paranoia, I don’t really mind), people begged the armed forces to take power. Has it not lasted for so long, the military governments would probably have been long forgotten or taken as something positive. But because they lasted for so long, the left was able to play its cards and pose as democratic victims of an authoritarian regime.

And this is, I believe, how we come to 2020. Bolsonaro has, I believe, a wrong idea about the military governments. Even if they were truly necessary to avoid a communist coup, they shouldn’t have lasted for so long. Besides that, the military presidents had their ups and downs in how they governed the country. Bolsonaro mostly can’t see that. The left, on the other hand, romanticizes the dictatorship. Some of them seem to actually believe in the lie that they were fighting for democracy. They were not. Had they won the war against the military forces, Brazil would have become something akin to Castro’s Cuba or Mao’s China. Had the military not won against the guerrillas, Brazil would have something akin to Colombia’s FARCs.

In sum, Brazil is still trapped in things that happened in the 1960s. Socialists, of course, wanted a big state. That’s basically their ideology. Ironically, in order to fight that, the military built an equally gigantic state. Petra Costa’s family got rich, fabulously rich, during the military governments. Today her family has contracts with the Workers’ Party. Some things change, but others remain the same: some people don’t care if governments are red or blue. All they care about is the green of the dollars. And a smaller state would be bad business for this kind of people.

Politics according to the Bible

Yeah, let’s go for a topic that is generally polemic. What I’m going to present here will not be exhaustive, but at least I believe it’s a fair and honest (although very breathy) treatment on the topic.

First things first, I believe that the Bible is the Word of God. I believe it was written by people (very likely all men) who were inspired by God. This means that the Bible is not their book. It’s God’s book. Also, although it was written in contexts and cultures very different from ours today, it is still true because it speaks of things that are eternal. So, with that in mind, here are some things I believe the Bible teaches on politics.

The whole Bible is a story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. God created the World “very good”. However, man fell from this status when he sinned. Sin is to disobey God’s law or to fail to conform to it.  When the first man, Adam, sinned, we all sinned, because Adam was our federal representative. It may sound unfair that we are all punished for something that someone else did, but students of politics shouldn’t be surprised. We suffer (or benefit) from things we didn’t do all the time. In this particular case, God chose Adam as humanity’s representative. God is just. It was a just choice. After Adam fell, Jesus became the federal representative of a part of humanity that God decided to save. This is the “redemption”. The restoration is God reversing the effects of the fall through the church.

The whole Bible story can be summarized as “kingdom through covenant”. A covenant is a solemn agreement between at least two (not necessarily equal) parties, involving promises and sanctions. God made a covenant with Adam. Adam broke that covenant. God made a covenant with Jesus. Jesus fulfilled the covenant. By fulfilling it, Jesus became the king of a people, the church.

Jesus’ covenant was anticipated by some covenants in what we call the Old Testament. Although the theories vary, the point is that God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses and David somehow anticipate Jesus. This means that in the Old Testament God’s people was mostly one nation, Israel, organized as a nation-state. This nation-state had civil laws. One great mistake is to try to apply these civil laws to any state today. Israel was an anticipation of the real people of God, the church. The church is not a nation-state. It doesn’t have civil laws. Actually, Jesus repeatedly said that his kingdom was not of this world, meaning that it would not be brought by political force.

The fact that Israel was an anticipation of the true church doesn’t mean that all the laws given to Israel are irrelevant today. The moral law given in the 10 commandments is still biding. even the civil laws, although no longer bidding, can be informative. The point is that these laws cannot be enforced by any state. They have to be preached. People must be left free to join. Or not.

What the church can expect from the state? It would certainly be great to live in a country that fully conforms to God’s moral law, but this is not a realistic expectation. The best we can expect is a state that keeps people free to decide whether they want to join the church or not. Other than that, there is a moral law that we all can benefit from: don’t hurt others and don’t pick their stuff without permission.

Trying to enforce God’s kingdom was one of the greatest mistakes Christians committed through the centuries, and I believe many Christians are still doing it today. We want people to be Christians not out of their free choice, but by coercion. Or we want people to externally behave as Christians when they are not. Again: the best we can do is to let people free to decide. And meanwhile, demand that we are also free to practice our religion, no matter what other people think about it.

Why some countries are stuck in poverty

It is fairly common for young children in Brazil (or at least in Rio de Janeiro, the part of the country I know better) to call adults “uncle” or “aunt”. My closest friends’ children call me uncle and I’m totally ok with that. I do see them as my nephews and nieces. That also happens in schools: children up to 11 or 12 call the teachers “aunt”. Some people think that this is normal or even cute. However, I studied in a school that strictly forbid children to call the teachers aunt. The teachers were supposed to be called simply “teacher”. One interchange became folkloric in my house: “Am I your father’s sister? Am I your mother’s sister? Am I married to your uncle? Then I’m not your aunt.” Ouch! As gruff as it might sound, that’s the mentality I grew up with. My mother was also never totally comfortable with some of my friends calling her “aunt”.

One of my favorite interpretations of Brazil came from Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1902-1982). In his book Raízes do Brasil (Brazil roots, 1936) he made an analysis of the country, saying that the problem with Brazilians is that they are cordial. Using Max Weber’s categories, Holanda said that Brazilians don’t know how to conduct formal, impersonal relationships. It is really hard for them (or I should say, for us) to understand that the guy in office is the guy in office and not our friend.

I would say that many times I saw Holanda’s interpretation in action. Students who thought they were my friends and that because of that I would go easy on their exams. Colleagues who thought I wouldn’t fine them when I was working in the library. People I barely knew, who were friends of my friends, who thought I would give them answers for the exams. I managed to be friends of some students, but that was the exception. Most students had a hard time distinguishing between “Bruno, my friend” and “Bruno, my professor”. Worse, some, I don’t know how, came to the conclusion that I was their friend.

Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president, presented himself as a father. He introduced Dilma Rousseff, his successor, as a mother. Getúlio Vargas, the horrendous dictator from the 1930s was widely known as “the father of the poor”. I’m sad to say that Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current and supposedly right-wing president, doesn’t really scape this logic. It may be nice and cute when little children call adults aunt or uncle, but it sickens me when grownups use this language. Even more so, when they use it to people they don’t even know!

Sergio Buarque de Holanda is one of the few things from college I profited from reading. It helped me to escape the Marxist bog that is much of Brazilian humanities academia. Years later I read Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism and I discovered that Brazil was not alone. That is the problem with many so-called capitalist countries that still lag behind. They are not really capitalist in the sense that the US, much of Western Europe or Japan and other Asian countries are, and one of the main reasons for that is that people don’t know how to conduct impersonal, formal relationships. The teacher is not your aunt, and the country is not a big family.

130 years of Republic in Brazil

Yesterday Brazil celebrated 130 years of Republic. It might be a personal impression but it seems to me that there is growing support for monarchy among conservatives. It’s very funny.

Brazil was initially a monarchy. Dom Pedro I, the prince regent of Portugal, declared Brazil’s independence from his father’s country in 1822. But he had to go back to Portugal less than 10 years later, leaving his son, Dom Pedro II, in Brazil. Dom Pedro II was too young to govern, and the 1830s were a mess in Brazil. When he effectively became emperor, things got much better.

Dom Pedro II ruled Brazil for about 50 years. To my knowledge, he was a wise man, genuinely concerned about Brazil. The 1824 Constitution was fairly liberal, and so were the emperors. Centrally, Dom Pedro II wanted to abolish slavery, but he was going against Brazilian elites on this. It’s not a coincidence that slavery was abolished in 1888 and the monarchy fell in the next year.

To my knowledge, Brazil had two good emperors and the constitution that ruled the country at that time was mostly good. However, Brazil was extremely oligarchal, and there was little that the emperors could do about that. I believe that Dom Pedro II was a wise and patient man, who slowly did the reforms the country needed.

I don’t know if Dom Pedro II’s daughter, Isabel, would have been a good empress. But I know that Dom Pedro II himself didn’t offer resistance when some republicans changed the regime. He peacefully went to exile in Europe. Dom Pedro manifested on some occasions that he was a republican. Maybe he was being ironic. Maybe not. In any case, I believe that he was glad to see the country coming to age, and being able to take care of itself without an emperor.

The first 40 years of Republic were not too bad. They were not perfect either! Slavery didn’t make a comeback. The republican constitution was written after the American one. The economy was mostly free, was it not so from the fact that coffee oligarchies ruled things to benefit their business. Things got really bad when the horrendous dictator Getúlio Vargas came to power in 1930.

I think there is something funny in the way some conservatives miss the monarchy. It wasn’t too bad. But it was also a time when Brazil suffered a lot under slavery and oligarchy. I’m certainly not sure if the monarchy was the best antidote to that.

Jair Bolsonaro: the Devil?

Scott Sumner wrote recently on The Library of Economics and Liberty a piece in which he apparently buys into Reason’s understanding that Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro is “the most extreme and repellent face of a resurgent, evangelical-driven right-wing attempt to drag the country backwards by decades”. Reason, on its turn, is buying into The Intercept’s understanding of Bolsonaro.

There is little new on the piece: Bolsonaro is a racist, a misogynist, a homophobic, a fascist… All the accusations that mainstream media is used to throw at him, mentioning no clear examples or just inventing ones. And once again, it is my job to defend not Bolsonaro himself, but the truth.

Bolsonaro was born in 1955. He is in many ways a typical aging Brazilian man. Coming from a lower middle-class family, as a young man, he joined the army. He was very young but lived the years in which the military took over power to defend Brazil from the communists. Many people today might think that the communist threat didn’t call for that. Nevertheless, this is not what common people in the 1960s understood. They were afraid and begged the Army to defend the country. Most people were happy to give up democracy in the name of security. Bolsonaro was among them. Maybe they were very wrong, but one should try to empathize with them.

Because of the environment in which he grew, statism and protectionism are in Bolsonaro’s blood. Actually, that’s how we all grew up in Brazil. We expect that the government will solve the problems, and we are not used to asking where the money will come from. We also believe that the government has to protect the Brazilian workers and businesspeople against foreign competition. To become economically conservative in Brazil is crazily hard. You have to fight against a deeply established culture. Bolsonaro seems to be fighting against his best instincts that tell him that he should protect the Brazilian market and promote development.

I seriously doubt that Bolsonaro is corrupt. In any functional democracy, this should be a given, but sadly in Brazil, especially after the PT years, to have an honest president is a great relief. I’m certainly not saying that he is incorruptible. Also, Bolsonaro was not virtuous enough to give up many of the privileges he had over the years as a politician. Nevertheless, compared to much of the Brazilian political class, he stands as an honest guy.

In a sense, all this talk is pointless. Bolsonaro was elected. He is the president. He is profoundly against all that the PT government did. The PT government brought Brazil into its deepest economical, political and moral crisis. Bolsonaro and the people around him are trying to revert this. I’m certainly not saying that he shouldn’t be criticized. But he needs help. And Brazilians need help as well. Our real enemy is certainly not Bolsonaro.

Back in Brazil: bureaucracy

After two years away, I’m trying to put my life back on tracks in Brazil, and one of the main obstacles for doing so is the country’s crazy bureaucracy. Maybe this will come as no surprise for many, but Brazil is known for its big fat bureaucratic system, and basically, any rational analyst I’ve ever heard or read believes that this is one of the main obstacles for the country’s economic growth.

One of the problems I’m facing is getting the money from my FGTS. FGTS stands for “Fundo de Garantia do Tempo de Serviço”, a compulsory savings account that all Brazilian workers are forced to have. The moment you get a job, your employer is responsible for putting a percentage of your salary in the account. In case you are fired (or retire, or get cancer – seriously), you can get the money.

FGTS was created in 1966, at the beginning of the military regime that lasted from 1964 to 1985. Funny enough, people on the left, who demonize the Military governments, are today the main defensors of FGTS. Reality is, as you can probably tell, that this does little to help workers. FGTS has a very low interest rate, lower than the country’s inflation. That means that you actually lose money with it. Any other private investement would be better. Besides, it is clear that its reason to be is not to help workers. FGTS was created because bureaucrats realized that Brazilians had no culture of savings, therefore the government had to create one in order to have some money reserve to use. And using it government did. FGTS accounts have frequently been used by the government to try to boom the economy Keynesian style. Trying to get your FGTS money is crazily hard. Bureaucracy turns into a maze and can win you by fatigue. Perhaps I should just leave my money with the government.

The Bolsonaro government is trying to modernize the economy, and part of the process might involve putting an end to FGTS and other peculiarities created by Brazilian bureaucrats in the past. The left, however, complains that workers are losing rights. I can tell by personal experience that I would be losing my right to have a very poor savings account that I didn’t choose and that I have a very hard time to get access to. But try to explain this to millions of workers that are still hostages for labor unions and left-wing political parties.

Back in Brazil: more impressions

Another thing that calls my attention in Brazil (or rather, in Rio de Janeiro) are the crazy traffic jams. All day long, traffic moves painfully slowly. Really. There is no rush hour. Every hour is rush. The reason is not hard to understand: there are way too many buildings for too few streets and poor options in mass transportation.

Thinking about this, I came across this excellent text. It is in Portuguese, so for those who can’t read it, I’ll summarize. Basically, zoning laws in Rio de Janeiro through the 20th century were completely crazy, following a very nasty relationship between politicians and real state companies. A company wanted to build taller buildings and profit, the city hall would not oppose, especially when a luxurious apartment was waiting for the mayor. The result is that old neighborhoods like Tijuca and Botafogo simply have no space on the streets for so many cars.

But what is the problem with many tall buildings? That’s what New York is all about, and I simply love the Big Apple! Well, that’s true, but NY has something that Rio doesn’t: a great mass transit system. Rio has four subway lines. Or three. Wait, maybe it’s just one. Here is the thing: on paper, Rio has four subway lines, which already makes no sense, since it only has lines 1, 2 and 4. Line 3 was planned but never built. Line 4 is just an extension of line 1, and line 2 trains enter line 1 (!). Although the system was privatized in the 1990s, it is very clear that it maintains a very suspicious connection with the state government. Sergio Cabral, Rio’s former governor, and presently in jail, was married to a lawyer who defended the Metro company. It is also clear that bus companies subsidize politicians who maintain their interests. In sum, Cariocas are hostages to a terrible public transport system that favors a criminous relationship between big companies and politicians.

Rio ends up representing very well a problem we see all over Brazil: people believe this is capitalism. Because of that, they vote for socialist parties. It should be painfully obvious from the examples of USSR, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea, China, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, and so many others that socialism simply doesn’t work. But here is the thing: people in Rio (and actually in Brazil and Latin America in general) suffered and suffer so much under crony capitalists that they can’t help but thinking that socialism might be the answer.

Hear, World! Socialism failed, just like Mises predicted. But as long as people suffer under crony capitalists, it will still be appealing, be it in a poor neighborhood or a college campus in the US, be it in a poor country in Latin America. The job is not done. Freedom isn’t free. We still have a long way to go freeing people from evil.